Weizmann International Summer Science Institute Australian graduates return – fully inspired!

August 29, 2017

For the month of July, three fortunate high school graduates attended the annual Weizmann Institute of Science International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) in Israel, one of which was thanks to a scholarship funded once again by the Trawalla Foundation.  Now on their return they are sharing their experiences.

Viney Kumar, formerly of Knox Grammar School, now studying Advanced Mathematics at Sydney University; Kate Cousins, formerly of Fort St High School Petersham, now studying a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) at Sydney University; and Emma Zwi, formerly of Moriah College, enrolled in a Bachelor of Advanced Science and Arts at UNSW, all said the trip was truly inspirational.

They joined another 77 students from 17 countries around the world, all keen to conduct pure scientific research at the Weizmann Institute under the guidance of experts in their fields, whilst also learning about the Weizmann Institute of Science and life in Israel.

During their visit they worked on a project in their chosen field of biology, molecular biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics or computer sciences. Upon completion, each student provided an oral presentation and a written report of their findings.

Other on-campus activities included lectures and workshops by senior institute scientists, departmental seminars and visits to some of the state-of-the-art facilities.

Their final week was more cultural, taking them to Jerusalem, Galilee, the Judean Desert and the Negev.  During these trips they had expert guides leading them on hikes and excursions and teaching them about the cultural, ecological, geographical, geological, zoological and archaeological characteristics of the region.  These trips are an integral part of the program, providing participants with a sense of Israel’s beauty and introducing them to its long history and diverse culture.

This is what each of them said about their trip:

Viney Kumar

Throughout this program, I was exposed to a huge variety of scientific experiences, extended my knowledge of Mathematics and Computer Science and made friendships that will last a lifetime.

At ISSI, I worked on a research project in the department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Weizmann under Mr Itay Safran in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Computer Vision. I was paired with students from France and Brazil and tasked with developing an AI based approach to tackle handwriting recognition and other image classification problems. After experimenting with various ideas, we were able to combine Mathematical Optimisation with some biological inspiration from the human brain to design an algorithm that successfully classified over 99% of 10,000 handwritten characters: an accuracy rate higher than current document recognition systems and close to the human accuracy of 99.8%. Our project won the prize for the best presentation in Mathematics and Computer Science.

While the research was the primary goal of ISSI, I particularly enjoyed the cultural experiences and trips throughout the course of the program. Our trips to Jerusalem, the Galilee, the Negev desert and Eilat were absolutely stunning, and allowed me to embrace Israel’s unique culture.

ISSI also allowed me to forge new friendships and interact with many peers from around the world with both similar and diverse interests. This strong and close community that I am now a part of will inspire me to do more, step outside my comfort zone, and become a better person as a result. We were encouraged to form strong bonds through our involvement in the labs, on trips, and in our leisure time, and it was through these activities that I realised that leadership, teamwork and collaboration between individuals with a wide variety of interests from around the globe are crucial to tackling large societal problems and changing the world for the better.

Overall, attending the ISSI has been a truly astounding experience, and I am incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to learn and grow from such an amazing program. Through the incredible support of the Trawalla Foundation (who provided my scholarship for the trip), Weizmann Australia and the ISSI, I have been exposed not only to some of the most incredible research work, but have made numerous friendships and embraced the experiences of a community that has exemplified both my scientific and personal goals for the coming years.

Kate Cousins

My scientific project was called: “The role of arginine R267 in p65 dimerisation and Withaferin-A binding.”  I and two other girls (one from Brazil and the other from Switzerland) focused on the NF-κB protein family that is involved in transcriptional activation of stress response genes and promotes cell survival. It is typically present in an inhibited state due to its potency in causing cell proliferation. Overexpression of these proteins is associated with many inflammatory diseases and cancers. NF-κB works by binding two of its subunits onto the major groove of DNA to form a dimer. Our project looked at how mutating an amino acid residue allosteric to the dimerising domain of the p65 subunit may affect normal imerization and the binding of the Withaferin-A (WFA) drug to p65, a drug that in the wild type has been found to inhibit imerization. We found that this R267 residue was not specific in imerization however we revealed that it does have WFA drug binding specificity. This is good news for the development of novel applications for WFA in potential-cancer treatments.

My time in Israel was truly the best month of my life because I was not only surrounded by, but included within a beautiful cohort of like-minded, passionate, young individuals. Living together in the youth village and our adventures around the country of Israel saw many deep and long-lasting friendships form. At the Weizmann Institute, we found that all the researchers, even those not involved in ISSI, were interested in educating us, as young students, about their work. As a result of our state of the art lab facilities, dedicated lab mentors, and the overall curiosity and openness of all the scientists at Weizmann, we learnt more than we could have imagined – not only about our own subject areas but about the other basic sciences and the principles of basic research.

Highlights at the Weizmann, for me, included the ability to contact researchers and explore new labs and new topics freely and with supportive guidance; the pleasure of calling the institute “home” and living between the youth village, the recreation area (pool and gym), the labs, and the food hall; and being encompassed by an enthusiasm for the proliferation of science. However, the truest highlights of all was meeting life-long friends and forming an international family. The weekend trips (stunningly organised and thought-out) brought us all closer together and allowed us to learn and appreciate the history and nature of Israel, which was such a new place to many of us.

The diversity and multiculturalism within the participants certainly propagated the overwhelming joy among us throughout the month. I believe that everyone’s favourite part of the month was the desert trip – six days hiking through the Judean and Negev deserts: setting off before the sunrise and watching it come over the horizon, mudding ourselves in the Dead Sea, visiting Bedouin camps, hunting for scorpions, sleeping under the stars, snorkelling the coral reefs of the Red Sea.  These six days were the absolute highlight of my trip, and I’d like to thank our councillors and supervisors again for their incredible job in keeping all 80 of us happy, healthy, and on-track. This part of the program was very, very impressive – well-organised and it gave us an infinite number of cultural opportunities that would otherwise be impossible to plan or to participate in as an average tourist of Israel.

This month changed my life, I have been inspired to pursue my passion for virology research but I have also discovered a new side of myself that wants to receive medical training so that I may travel the world and aid disadvantaged communities by curing illnesses and connecting with their cultures All this has come from the phenomenal students I was able to bond with at ISSI and for this inspiration and new-found joy of life, I must express my ultimate gratitude to the Weizmann Institute (Rehovot) and Weizmann Australia.

Emma Zwi

This past month at the Weizmann Institute has been one of the most rewarding of my life – the knowledge gained, and the relationships formed, will certainly inhabit a special place in my memory.

I worked under the supervision of Dr Anna Chuprin, researching the role of DNA damage in immunological self-tolerance induction in the thymus. This proved to be quite a niche project, contributing to a field of science involving the role of autoimmune regulators in gene transcription.

Our time in the labs was relaxed and enjoyable, but there was always something new to see; whether it be the mouse enclosure, the -80’C freezer, the bacteria culture room, slide slicing apparatus, or the labyrinth of microscopes below our building. These spontaneous incursions were as fascinating as our own research, and showcased the wide scope of activities being undertaken at the institute in the field of biochemistry. My team were lucky enough to find positive results – results that confirmed our hypotheses – which is often quite rare in the world of scientific research.

Although the research was of course very interesting and valuable, the social aspect is what really stands out about my ISSI experience. So many great friendships were formed so quickly, with recurring jokes and rich conversation constantly flowing. Singing around the piano, dancing led by the South Americans, sharing meals, late night walks, magic tricks, singing happy birthday, learning lines in other languages, free nights in Tel Aviv, and generally being in a group of awesome like-minded people made this month nothing short of incredible. The highlight of my trip was definitely the desert excursion; six days of hiking in the heat, only to come across a beautiful natural spring, sleeping under the stars in various locations across Israel, and countless other amazing experiences combined to make a beautiful mess not to be forgotten.

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of ISSI 2017. To the next lucky group, I envy the experiences that are to come.

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